In August of this year, members of a local Republican women’s club were gathered in the Duval Hotel in downtown Tallahassee to hear from one of Florida’s top political consultants, who had a mission for them. Brett Doster was preparing a voter registration effort—unusual for a Republican, at least in Florida, where Democrats tend to make that kind of nuts-and-bolts politicking a priority.
Doster stood up at the front of the room and made the case for volunteering to register different demographics—veterans, recent retirees—that are likely Republican supporters but may not be registered because they’ve recently moved to the state. Doster spoke excitedly—timing can be critical in terms of getting voters registered and eligible for the next election—but there was one group he left out.
“The word ‘woman’ was never mentioned one time in the entire one hour speech,” recalls Sandra Mortham, a longtime Republican politician and lobbyist. As the gathering broke up, Mortham cornered Doster. “I missed that part of the speech,” she told him.
To Mortham’s surprise, Doster said he deliberately hadn’t mentioned women. Women are a reliable voting bloc, he explained, and they consistently turn out in higher numbers than men. They didn’t need to be registered, Doster said, at least not when other favorable groups could be targeted. Mortham nodded. They agreed to meet later at his office to discuss the project.
“I’m anxious to find out what their thought process is,” says Mortham. “I just find it amazing that you can have 56 percent of the voting population and we are not all over that like a tent.”
For many women in the party, the frustration goes beyond the way leading strategists talk about female voters—it extends to the makeup of campaign teams and the look of many GOP strategy tables. Republicans, it has been said, have a woman problem. In 2012, women were a majority of voters; nationally, 55 percent of them voted Democratic, according to exit polling. The Democrats’ advantage with women helped the party overcome the GOP’s edge with male voters. It’s not hyperbole to say that women decided the election.
“We’ve got to start tailoring campaigns with that in mind, and the best way to do that is having female voices at the table,” says Katie Packer Gage, a founding partner of WWP Strategies and Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012. “We’re just being dumb if we don’t do that.”
To be sure, there are a number of prominent female consultants operating on the Republican side of the aisle. The influential Nicole McCleskey is a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. Angela Faulkner, an Indiana-based direct mail consultant, owns her firm, Gridiron Communications. Longtime media strategist Kim Alfano heads her D.C.-based firm. The former Republican National Committee chief of staff Anne Hathaway is also in that category, and the recently-formed GOP media firm Something Else Strategies boasts Malorie Thompson and Lori Raad among its partners.
After 2012, according to Ashley O’Connor, who advised Romney’s presidential campaign, there might just be reason to believe the ranks of female Republican operatives are ready to increase.
“In the past, I’ve not come across too many women,” says O’Connor, a managing partner at Strategic Partners & Media. “But walking into the Romney campaign, I was incredibly pleased with how many women were there.”
She points to Gail Gitcho, Katie Biber, who was the campaign’s general counsel, and Packer Gage as just part of the female contingent on Romney’s senior leadership team. “That’s not often the case,” says O’Connor.
That, however, is not a universally held opinion. In fact, Packer Gage remembers the Romney strategy table a bit diferently. “At our strategy table on the campaign, there were probably 50 people and four women present,” she says. “Usually it was only three of us … It makes it hard to counter a very male perspective which permeates campaigns both on the right and the left.”
Right or left, many female operatives and consultants have in common the experience of being the only woman in the room—Thompson, a top adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is one of them.
“If you take me out,” says Thompson, “and you’re left with only men sitting around the table talking about, ‘how are we going to target women?’ I think you’re left with a perspective gap, really, which then grows into a gender gap.” If you happen to be the party struggling mightily when it comes to winning over female voters, that’s a problem.